John Ellington’s plan to escape Georgia’s political tribalism

State Court of Appeals Judge John Ellington/AJC file

State Court of Appeals Judge John Ellington/AJC file

Tribalism is the current catch phrase with cachet in American politics. Our discourse has become polarized and insular. We have embraced moral and legal relativism with all the enthusiasm of a 50-yard line spectator at a Georgia-Alabama game.

Never mind those lying eyes, whether they’re lodged in your head or mine. My team can do no wrong. Yours can do no good.

What started at the top has trickled to the bottom. In the Democratic race for governor, a candidate who once worked closely with Gov. Nathan Deal has signaled she’ll attack her rival as a closet Republican. Purity will be a key measure on the GOP side of that contest, too — once contenders figure out what Donald Trump conservatism actually is.

Stacey Abrams is running for governor.

Perhaps it is this emptiness at our political center that makes John Ellington’s candidacy so startling. The man is a walking anachronism.

Ellington, 57, is currently the sole candidate in the race to replace the retiring Carol Hunstein on the Georgia Supreme Court. What makes him so odd, so strange in this climate is that Republicans like him. And Democrats, too.

“One Saturday, I spoke at the Sonny Perdue fish fry down in Perry, and that Thursday at Better Georgia in downtown Atlanta,” Ellington said this week. The latter group is a high-strung, aggressively Democratic operation.

“But I think it’s important for people to see me at their events. I think you need to be approachable,” he said.

In Georgia, Supreme Court retirements are usually a judiciary gift to the governor. The occupant leaves in the midst of a six-year term, allowing the executive branch an appointment that is ratified – often without opposition – in the next election cycle.

Hunstein, a Zell Miller appointee, has decided not to give Deal that boon. Which means that in May we will see the first Supreme Court justice elected without prior gubernatorial appointment since 1982.

Ellington's status as the only candidate for Hunstein’s seat is unlikely to last. To that end, he’s raised $520,000 — and secured endorsements from every quarter in the state Capitol.

Appointed to the state Court of Appeals in 1999 by Gov. Roy Barnes, Ellington now has the endorsement of Governor Deal, too. House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, has given Ellington his blessing, as has state Rep. Bob Trammell of Luthersville, leader of the House Democratic caucus.

Ellington employs a Republican political sherpa, who is also currently working for Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. And yet, he’s also been endorsed by DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond.

The man bridges rural and urban Georgia as well. Ellington originally hails from Soperton, Ga., a small community 10 miles distant from a lonely stretch of I-16. When in Atlanta, he takes his shoes off in a 31st floor apartment on Peachtree Street.

“Since the Georgia Bulldogs lost, they won’t let me out on the balcony. They’ve still got it padlocked where I can’t get out there,” he said, adding more seriously: “I’m very fortunate. I get to live in two worlds.”

In addition to his successful wooing of Democrats and Republicans, Ellington has also charmed Georgia’s third political party: The state’s business community. His campaign chairman is David Ratcliffe, former CEO of the Southern Co., parent company of Georgia Power.

Ellington has an explanation for his bipartisan – tripartisan? – success. “What they’re looking for is stability. I’m a known commodity. I’ve been doing this for 18 years at the Court of Appeals. I was a trial judge before that,” he said.

But there may be another reason that Ellington’s pursuit of a state Supreme Court seat hasn’t devolved into red-or-blue tribalism: The seat has already been inoculated against that particular disease.

In 2006, several Supreme Court justices were up for re-election. Hunstein was the only woman, and the only one targeted by a group called the Georgia Safety and Prosperity Coalition. Supreme Court races in Georgia are nonpartisan.

Members of the Safety and Prosperity Coalition attempted to change that. Alabama, the land of Judge Roy Moore, was their model. Their candidate, also backed by Gov. Sonny Perdue and the Georgia GOP, was attorney Mike Wiggins, a Bush administration lawyer.

“The first thing my opponent said in his newspaper interview was that he was the Republican and the conservative, and that I was the Democrat and the liberal,” said Hunstein, 73. “My response was that he can be whatever he wants to be. This is a nonpartisan race and I have both Republican and some Democrats who are supporting me.”

With outside money, the cost of the race probably topped $2 million — a hefty sum even then. Powerful Georgia business groups put significant sums behind Wiggins. “They wanted their guy who would rule their way in business cases as much as anything else,” Hunstein said.

She won, obviously. I asked the exiting justice why they didn’t try again in 2012. “Well, because they were defeated by 63 percent,” Hunstein said. A smile came with that answer.

She takes only partial credit. “Lawyers all across this state decided they would like to have somebody who at least espouses that they’re fair and impartial, rather than representing the Chamber of Commerce or anyone else,” Hunstein said.

I spoke with Ellington, who would replace her, several days later. I can think of several reasons why his judicial contest hasn’t turned into a dog fight.

The appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court last year has eased national GOP worries about the future of the judiciary. On the state level, Governor Deal will have appointed a majority of the nine-member state Supreme Court by the time he leaves office. (Supreme Court Justice Harris Hines is to retire this summer.)

But I prefer to believe, as Ellington does, that there exists a consensus, an agreement, that a small corner of our government ought to be allowed to do what it does, immune from Hatfield-McCoyism.

“It’s one thing for somebody to lose a case. It’s much worse for them to lose confidence in the system,” Ellington said. “And it’s incumbent upon all of us to protect that system.”